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Zoo Bar claims win in court; Federal judge orders Detroit to rewrite ordinance

DETROIT — The city must rewrite its regulations governing when and where strip clubs can operate, because a federal judge ruled portions of Detroit’s zoning laws unconstitutional.

The case stems from a lawsuit by the owners of downtown’s Zoo Bar.

They wanted to transfer the strip club’s permit to a new buyer, but the City Council rejected the transfer. The lawsuit challenges Detroit’s policy on the transfer of permits, as well as its broader regulations overseeing adult entertainment.

Strip club attorneys said Wednesday the judge is calling for major changes, but opponents say it doesn’t take away the city’s overall power to regulate the businesses.

U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. ruled this week on one portion of the lawsuit, finding that the city’s zoning laws governing First Amendment-protected adult entertainment are unconstitutional on two points.

First, the city’s Buildings and Safety Engineering Department is given too broad discretion to deny a strip club from opening, according to the ruling. There are 15 findings city officials must reach before approving a club — including finding that the business won’t reduce property values in the area.

And the judge found that there’s no deadline for the city to act on the permit applications. That means the city can sit on them and allow them to languish.

” The Court directs the city to revise its zoning ordinance forthwith to bring it into compliance with the First Amendment,” Cook said.

Lawyers for strip clubs have argued there should be an area in which the clubs can locate, without an arbitrary approval process through a city department.

“This is a victory for my client,” said Brad Shafer, an attorney for the Zoo Bar. “They will have to change their entire approach to zoning adult business.”

City officials wouldn’t comment specifically on the case but say they are reviewing the ruling.

But Richard Mack Jr., an attorney and member of Perfecting Church, which has lobbied against strip clubs, said he doesn’t believe the ruling will make it easier for strip clubs to open in the city unfettered.

“We aren’t overly concerned that the city has to throw up its hands,” Mack said. “All they have to do is make a couple of changes.”

And Patricia Irving Cwiek, a former city attorney and an expert in adult business zoning, said she believes Detroit would have a strong case to appeal the judge’s ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Detroit’s adult entertainment ordinance in 1976 in the landmark Coleman A. Young vs. American Mini Theatres. And she said the circumstances are “virtually identical.”

Shafer disagreed, saying the cases are significantly different and that the current ruling is key to his remaining case against the city. The judge hasn’t ruled on several other issues and hasn’t decided whether the Zoo Bar will be awarded any damages.

Shafer believes Detroit could have to pay the bar millions in lost revenue. The new owners want to open a Hustler strip club at the location.

The ruling could affect a proposed strip club on Eight Mile on the site of a former go-kart track between Mound and Mount Elliott. The city denied Mike Dabish’s request to open the club in March, even though the proposed club is in an industrial area. The city’s zoning ordinances allow strip clubs to open primarily in industrial areas.

Vincent Tatone, Dabish’s attorney, said Tuesday the ruling is a first step toward overturning the denial. Dabish has filed a motion to join the Zoo Bar lawsuit and his attorney is appealing the city’s denial in Wayne County Circuit Court.

“I am hoping he will get to resubmit his application under a zoning ordinance that is constitutional,” Tatone said. “My client feels he is being singled out and being discriminated against.”

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